Welcome back to hockey. The NHL is on television today after more than four months off as the league responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Montreal Canadiens in an exhibition game at 8 pm. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will play earlier in the day (also in Toronto) and the Edmonton Oilers will go up against the Calgary Flames in Edmonton.
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In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at decisions the team made during training camp that have held through Monday’s practice. I’ll also note some things they must do to win their play-in tournament with the Columbus Blue Jackets. I’ll take a look at an award that Mitch Marner was nominated for this week, and I’ll note what’s happening in Major League Baseball that might affect the NHL’s Phase 4 plans.
Item One: Can the Maple Leafs Defense Hold Together During the Play-In Series?
According to the statistics, the Maple Leafs must play better defense during the postseason than they did during the regular season if they hope to leapfrog the Blue Jackets and move into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team was near the bottom – actually fifth-worst during the 2019-20 season – in goals allowed.
As TSN’s Mark Masters reported late last night, no one doubts the Maple Leafs’ talent but he questions whether this highly-skilled team can play strong defensive hockey for periods of time. Their postseason play over the last three series is less than inspiring – they gave up 69 goals in 20 games, a 3.45 goals-per-game clip. Those numbers led to three first-round trips home.
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Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas admitted as much: “We have a lot to prove. The players know the doubts that are on them whether it’s from media or other teams and so they know what they have to prove and I think them acknowledging it and talking about it is a good sign … they know we have to prove it and that’s what we’ll get to here in the coming weeks and years.”
Item Two: Mitch Marner Named King Clancy Nominee
Yesterday, the NHL announced the 31 nominees for the 2019-20 King Clancy Memorial Trophy which included the Maple Leafs’, Mitch Marner. The King Clancy is awarded to the player “who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community.”
Marner was nominated for his tireless work promoting local brands and stores. Only one Maple Leafs player has won the award since it was introduced in 1988. Curtis Joseph earned that honour in 1999-2000 for his work with the Hospital for Sick Children, and where he created “Cujo’s Crease,” a lounge for children that resembled the Maple Leafs dressing room. He also donated a suite for each home game to patients.
The other nominees for the award are below:
Item Three: Robertson Seems Firmly Entrenched on Third Line
After Monday’s practice, the forward lines were tweeted by the Maple Leafs. Nick Robertson has found a home on the third line with partners Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen. During training camp, he was moved to several different spots, and this is the longest he’s been with the same group.
Perhaps head coach Sheldon Keefe has found something he’s going to stick with. If so, that will give the young Robertson a chance to prove his mettle during the postseason and add excitement to an already ramped up Maple Leafs fanbase.
Item Four: Denis Malgin Has Dropped Down the Maple Leafs Depth Chart
Denis Malgin practiced with the team on Monday, but he skated on the fifth line. Fans likely shouldn’t expect the Swiss native to see much action this postseason – that is, unless there are injuries or players are deemed “unfit to play” due to COVID-19.
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However, many players would have to be injured for Malgin to pass Nicolas Petan and Frederik Gauthier on the organizational depth chart. The worst-case scenario – and one that’s occurring right now in MLB – is that COVID-19 runs rampant through some teams who must then revert to their depth players to carry the team. In that case, Malgin might find himself in the middle of a Stanley Cup run he didn’t expect.
Item Five: Timothy Liljegren Is Practicing with the Team
Timothy Liljegren rejoined his team during Monday’s practice session, and, like Malgin, he likely shouldn’t expect to see much ice time during the postseason. The young Swedish defenseman will only play if there are multiple injuries or players are deemed “unfit to play.”
Item Six: Pierre Engvall Skated on the Fourth Line on Monday
Keefe kept Pierre Engvall as the fourth line center with Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford on his wings. He was on the third line for most of training camp.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
In an earlier post, I noted how quickly well-planned ideas can go awry in the face of a virulent virus. This morning Major League Baseball announced that 15 of the 33 players travelling with the Miami Marlins had tested positive for COVID-19. With coaches, that makes 18 members who have contracted the virus. Those are scary numbers.
In response, the Marlins had to cancel at least two games, and perhaps more cancellations are on the way. I know little about the spread of the virus, but it strikes me that hockey players, whose exertion levels and proximity are different from baseball players, have a greater chance of contracting the virus.
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The week after the first round of exhibition games will tell us a lot about how the NHL’s Phase 4 will go. I’m also interested to see how teams will adapt their cultural activities, like hugging after a goal.
Good luck and my best to all those young men who play, coach, and referee these games.